HOUSTON — One by one, they stepped to a clear plastic lectern at the Global Plastics Summit here and talked about what their companies were doing in response to the world's crisis in plastics waste.
Representing businesses all along the supply and packaging chain, the speakers suggested solutions ranging from new technology that would take plastic back to its molecular building blocks for repeated recycling to redesigning plastic bottles with caps that stay connected to the bottle.
But none of that is happening fast enough to keep pace with the global production of plastics, an analyst from IHS Markit told some 270 people attending the 2019 Global Plastics Summit.
IHS Market, a co-host of the conference, expects plastics production to grow on average 3.5 to 4 percent per year through at least 2035. With recycling programs largely underfunded and ineffective, there's potential for billions more tons of plastic waste to be headed to landfills or out into the environment, said Dewey Johnson, an IHS Markit vice president. And new recycling technology is a decade or more away, he said.
"The solution isn't going to happen overnight," Johnson said. "The solution is going to happen over decades." The industry, he cautioned, will need to work to "maintain trust along the ride."
Don't delay, he said, because "this continuing increase in the plastics market increases the scale of the size of the solution."
Johnson's comment set the tone for a conference that, unlike past gatherings, revealed an industry that is recognizing the challenges ahead as the public becomes more aware of the growing waste problems and the climate change impact of plastics across their lifecycle. In an interview, Johnson said industry leaders are starting to recognize sustainability is part of their social license to do business.
The Visual Impact of Ocean Plastics
In the hallways and meeting rooms of a glitzy hotel that boasts a Rolls-Royce dealership, people from chemical manufacturers listened to presentations and talked business with representatives of plastic product makers, consumer products companies and recyclers. Government officials were also there for a meeting that was dominated by sessions on sustainability.
Industry has been taking a beating in the public's eye—and cities, states and some countries have begun to restrict, ban or regulate certain plastics. Analysts described all this as one of many risks to plastics' economic future.
Plastics "is in our air, our water, our food, our excrement," said Nina Butler, the chief executive officer of More Recycling, a research and consulting company that works with the plastics industry on recycling "It's very, very pervasive."
The plastics industry has been confronted by a robust "anti-plastics campaign," lamented Patty Long, the interim president and chief executive officer of the Plastics Industry Association, the conferences' other co-host.
To illustrate the industry's challenge, she showed a 2018 National Geographic magazine cover of a plastic bag iceberg in the ocean, an image that showed up in other presentations, as well.
"If I am going to be honest, I must say it's been pretty uncomfortable these last six months to a year as we have watched images of plastic strewn over beaches and pictures of sea animals with ingested plastic," Long said. "We see it over and over and over again."
At the same time, the industry has been fighting state legislation that seeks to curb plastics pollution, including pushing back on more than 400 bills in dozens of states. "Unfortunately, a lot of those are going to pass," she said.
Fighting legislation is just one front in its battle. Long also described the industry's publicity push to get people to love plastics instead of only worrying about their impact.
She said the industry was lobbying state lawmakers, working to get pro-plastics presentations into schools and developing a website to carry the industry's message and give its workers something positive to say about plastics when they are confronted about their employment.
It's a problem, she said, when "a 27-year-old might not want to come work" in the plastics industry. In fact, three Millennial generation workers in the plastics industry who spoke at one session confirmed that some people out of college are shunning the industry because of environmental concerns.
"We are at the point where we have to show progress and tout our progress" toward sustainability, said Apurva Shah, a young marketing manager for Charter NEX Films.
Governments Banning Single-Use Plastics
The petrochemical industry sees plastics as a long-term growth opportunity. But right now, the industry is feeling pressure, said Jacqueline Savitz, a top official with the environmental group Oceana. "They realize the public has warmed up to the problem of plastics and that is going to be a real problem for them," said Savitz, who was not at the conference.
Just this week, a study in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology calculated that the average American ingests more than 70,000 particles of microplastics per year, though the authors said the health effects of that consumption were not clear.
Politicians are starting to respond to the concerns.
The United Nations late last year reported a surge in plastic bag bans—nearly two thirds of countries worldwide have adopted some form of legislation to regulate plastic bags.
In 2014, California became the first state to impose a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores. Since then, Hawaii and New York have enacted similar bans, and a newly passed limit on single-use plastics in Vermont, where the governor has said he would let it become law.
Cities like Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., have passed plastic bag bans or fees. In March, the European Parliament approved a new law banning single-use plastic items such as plates, cutlery and straws by 2021, and set a 90 percent collection target for plastic bottles by 2029.
Lifecycle Problems, Including Climate Change
The conference theme was sustainability and focused a lot on waste and recycling. But increasingly questions are being raised about plastics' role in climate change.
Last month, a report by the Center for International Environmental Law and several other environmental groups found that in 2019, the production and incineration of plastic will produce more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases—equal to the emissions from 189 large coal-fired power plants—and that the plastics industry's carbon footprint was on track to grow rapidly in the coming decades.
Conference speakers celebrated the shale fracking boom that, through new drilling methods, have put a glut of cheap natural gas on the market, driving down manufacturing prices and spurring the development of a potential new plastics production hub in Appalachia.
With the glut of cheap natural gas liquids used to make plastics, there's little financial incentive for the industry incorporate more expensive recycled content in their products, said Butler, the CEO of More Recycling. That's been a bigger problem than China's decision to restrict imports of plastic waste for recycling there, she said.
Only 9 percent of all the plastics ever made have been recycled, scientists reported in 2017.
One answer could be what's called chemical recycling, where plastic products are converted back into their molecular building blocks before being turned into new products, Butler said. "We need to look at how to save the molecule and keep it in circulation."
Companies are aggressively working to develop that technology, said Dhaval Shah, a technical director with the global petrochemical company, SABIC, based in Saudi Arabia.
It would reduce the need for extracting oil or gas, putting the industry closer to a circular economy, which designs waste out of the system, speakers said.
"In the next 25 years, we are looking at world where there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish," said Michael Waas, a vice president of TerraCycle, which works with companies like Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo and Colgate-Palmolive on their recycling challenges. They have, for example, recycled toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes into playgrounds, he said.
But, he said, "we realized we are not going to be able to recycle ourselves out of the waste challenge."
Johnson called plastic "a miracle product" that has "enabled the improved standard of living we enjoy." He and other speakers touted plastics used in health care, in cars to make them lighter and more durable to save fuel and lives, and in other everyday products.
But he said the industry needs to respond to the waste issue in a timely manner.
"The time to act is today. Not some day," Johnson said.
Top photo: Plastic waste washes ashore in Africa. Credit: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images